The Maine Board of Pharmacy has directed the Attorney General’s Office to send a cease-and-desist letter to a Canadian company that has been marketing low-cost prescription drugs to Mainers since last fall.

The board also has directed the attorney general to launch a formal investigation of the actions of Canadadrugcenter.com.

“We are pleased with the board’s decision. We think it was the right course of action,” said Kenneth “Mac” McCall, president of the Maine Pharmacy Association, who filed a complaint with the board in January.

McCall said he began looking into Canadadrugcenter.com last fall after he noticed the company advertising cheap medications in Maine newspapers, including the Portland Press Herald and the Kennebec Journal.

Once he researched the company, he discovered it is not a licensed pharmacy. He then decided to buy three medications from the company. When they arrived by mail, he discovered that the prescriptions were manufactured in India, Turkey and Mauritius, not Canada.

In his complaint, McCall said Maine law allows the purchase of drugs only from “A licensed retail pharmacy that is located in Canada, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Commonwealth of Australia or New Zealand that meets its country’s statutory and regulatory requirements.”

Joseph Bruno, chair of the Board of Pharmacy and the head of a chain of pharmacies in southern Maine, said Thursday’s unanimous decision was “pretty black and white.”

“It was clear they were practicing without a license,” he said Friday. “We know this is going on everywhere. The (Food and Drug Administration) shut down 1,700 of these operations just last year.”

John Myers, an attorney in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who represents Canadadrugcenter.com, attended Thursday’s board meeting in Maine but did not respond to multiple requests for comment Friday.

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacies has a comprehensive list of mail-order websites indicating whether they are legitimate, licensed companies or not. Canadadrugcenter.com has been on the list of “not recommended sites” for some time. In fact, the only approved Internet pharmacies, according to the association, appear to be operated by U.S. companies.

It’s not clear how many Mainers are buying prescriptions from international companies, legally or otherwise, because no one tracks that information.

Bruno said there could be thousands of companies like Canadadrugcenter.com operating without licenses or any real regulation. He said they will continue to operate because the allure of low-cost medication is great for many, but safety should be the bigger concern.

“When we are made aware of a violation, we will go after them,” Bruno said.

International prescription shopping has been happening in Maine for some time, but the dynamics have changed. In the past, Mainers crossed the Canadian border, sometimes by the busload, to have their prescriptions filled at Canadian pharmacies, where prices were often cheaper.

With the advancement of online pharmaceutical sales, the process became murkier.

In 2012, when he was Maine’s attorney general, William Schneider issued a ruling that Canadian pharmacies were not legally licensed to do business in Maine. That decision halted a nine-year relationship between a company called CanaRx and some employees of the state government and the city of Portland.

The decision also prompted a new law to allow international pharmacies to do business in Maine, but only if they were licensed in one of four countries: Canada, Australia, New Zealand or the United Kingdom. As long as those pharmacies meet their own countries’ statutory and regulatory requirements, they don’t need separate licenses in Maine.

Jessica Grondin, spokeswoman for the city of Portland, said this month that city employees can order brand-name medications through the voluntary Portland Meds program, which receives mail order prescriptions from pharmacies in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

“We are satisfied with the program, given the cost savings that we’ve seen,” she said. The city has roughly 1,500 employees, and about 113 people are participating in the program, including employees and family members or others who are eligible.

The Maine Pharmacy Association, made up of licensed pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and pharmacy students, is one of several groups that sued the state last fall hoping to overturn the law. That lawsuit is still pending in U.S. District Court.

McCall said his complaint about Canadadrugcenter.com was unrelated to the lawsuit. But McCall said he opposes the law because he thinks it helps companies like Canadadrugcenter.com to do business. The reason, he said, is that consumers cannot always tell the difference between legitimate pharmacies and unregulated ones.

The FDA has increasingly urged consumers to be wary of buying drugs online, including from Canadian companies. The agency notes on its website that it does not have the authority to regulate drugs sold in Canada, and that its counterpart, Health Canada, may not have control over drugs that are sold only for export to the United States.

McCall said he hopes that Thursday’s decision will give pause to other companies that are operating in violation of state law.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell